May 15 "To sin by silence when they should protest makes cowards of men." -Abraham Lincoln
Enough already with the defense of our position. Lets talk about what we can do to develop better athletes with a safe, productive, and efficient program. [By the way, we received an e-mail concerning our use of "efficiency": "efficiency- (I'm assuming you mean the best way to train.)" Actually, by efficiency we mean time spent in the weight room. We would not claim a "best way to train."]
To meet all three of our criteria of safe, productive, and efficient we prescribe a set/rep routine dependent on the athlete's training level. Assuming an athlete has moderate proficiency with the exercise movements we would prescribe a warm-up set on the first lift of an exercise routine before performing 1 set to failure within a pre-determined rep range.
We will use the bench press as an example. [We have recently received several concerns that we are being hypocritical in our use of the bench press and our pontifications on safety. We are open to this topic and plan on addressing it further in the future. As of now, many schools use the bench press, so for the sake of this example we will use it too.]
After a proper warm-up, which could be a variety of activities that initiate a sweat on the athlete, the athlete should load the bar with enough weight to properly work the muscles for a warm-up set. This does not have to be a lot of weight, nor done to a certain number of reps. We feel that 50-60% of their working set is appropriate to no more than 5 reps. Remember, we do not want to exhaust the muscles in the warm-up.
The working set of the exercise should be done with enough weight in which the typical athlete will fail between 6-10 reps. This rep range may be different for various athletes. We feel it is the coach's job to help the athlete find the optimal range. This takes time, weeks possibly, and can only be done if the coach is monitoring the athlete's work-out cards.
Spotting should be emphasized by the coaching staff. Many times kids do not understand the importance of this element, especially when pushing the exercise to failure. A spotter should allow the athlete to physically become unable to push the bar another inch. Obviously, there are some safety techniques the spotter can use without compromising the integrity of the lift.
The athlete will then record how much weight was lifted on the working set and how many reps they did. Until they reach the top of the rep range they will keep the same amount of weight on their working set. Once the athlete reaches the top of the rep range they put more weight on the bar and start the process over again. This model allows the athlete and the coach to see strength gains without the aid of projected or assumed strength levels. What you see is what you get... The proof is in the pudding... Add your cliche here...
Should the athlete stall on their progress, meaning stop continuing to go up in reps over a period of time there are various things a coach can prescribe from intensifying techniques to more rest.
We believe that the 1 working set to failure is safe in the fact that we do not overload the muscle with a weight that would require low rep range (1-3 reps). We believe that the 1 working set to failure is productive in the fact that motor units, or muscle fiber, that is recruited is comparable and can even exceed that of multiple set protocols (Starkey). Finally, we believe that the 1 working set to failure is efficient in the fact that the time spent in the weight room is obviously considerably less than that of a multiple set routine.
Again, we stress that there is not 1 best way to train athletes. We simply desire other coaches who may seek out various training strategies to understand that the traditional training methods of multiple sets, 1 rep maxes, and olympic training is not the only or most efficient way to train an athlete for athletic competition, outside of Olympic Lifting events.
Starkey, D. B., Welsch, M. A., Pollock, M. L., Graves, J. E., Brechue, W. F., & Ishida, Y. (1994). Equivalent improvement in strength following high intensity, low and high volume training. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 26(5), Supplement abstract 651.